UNTIL recently, Grace Grattan Guinness was better remembered for who she married: the great Edwardian preacher Henry Grattan Guinness. He was the founder of the East London Mission Institute, and the author of several books on biblical prophecy that were renowned in their day. Grace was Henry’s second wife; more than 40 years her senior, he was already 68 when they married in 1903. They had only seven years together before his death.
His may be the more celebrated life, but a new biography of Grace — or, rather, “a fictionalised work, strongly based on fact” — by the writer Michele Guinness, wife of Grace’s great-grandson, presents a woman of wit, vivacity, and extraordinary forthrightness. Clearing out the attic in preparation for her husband Peter’s retirement from his parish, Guinness found a trunk full of Grace’s diaries, journals, and correspondence, on which the new book is based.
“In many ways, she was very ordinary: the seventh child of a comfortable, middle-class Victorian family with maids and a nanny,” Guinness writes. “She made an unusual marriage, had two children, was widowed, and went out to work in order to keep them. But she was also a well-read social commentator on her times — times that encompassed five monarchs, two world wars, the introduction of motor transport, electricity, and the telephone, the discovery of antibiotics, and the invention of vaccination. Hers was a life strewn seemingly at random with encounters with famous people.
“So in other ways she was also an extraordinary woman: ahead of her time for an Edwardian lady; a rebel against the constraints of her narrow religious upbringing; unconventional in her choice of husband; defiant of a society that frowned on a well-bred single mother going out to work; a businesswoman who ran her own private hotel; and an early feminist. She worked until she was well beyond the age of 70, read The Times every day and at least one book a week, and could comment in an erudite manner on politics, science, philosophy, theology, music, and literature.”
INDEED, many surprisingly liberal views punctuate a narrative that begins in a devout Brethren home. Grace’s father was an evangelist, too: it was “one of his most fervent beliefs that the whole of life could be, and ought to be, maintained by faith alone”. Much of Grace’s writing about her family focuses on her “gifted, free-spirited sister Ruth. The two women were exceptionally close, and appear to have encouraged one another in breaking some of the taboos of their generation.”
“‘The call’ finally came to Ruth in 1898,” the story continues. “At twenty-four, she had convinced herself that since I [Grace] had taken more than our fair share of the family good looks, leaving her with our maternal grandfather’s somewhat prominent Roman nose, she must embrace a life of singleness and dedicate herself instead to the people of Africa.” While serving in Uganda, Ruth married the leader of the mission, “an experienced Church Missionary Society clergyman, the Revd Arthur Fisher, a doughty Irishman”.
The contexts of these women’s lives, then, make their liberal feminist views on some matters all the more intriguing. “Ruth and I have committed ourselves to the campaign for birth control, as we both feel rather strongly about it — even if it does offend the finer feelings of her new parishioners,” Grace writes elsewhere, introducing one of the most thought-provoking passages of the book:
“The first birth-control clinic was opened two years ago by Marie Stopes, and has been the centre of a great deal of controversy. Ruth and I had both read Mrs Stopes’s book, Married Love, which we had acquired with some difficulty, it not being a ‘seemly’ topic for women of our refinements, and therefore only privately circulated. And we were far from the only ones to do so, though no one, certainly not our own sisters, ever admitted to reading it, of course. Bee is single and a Catholic, and Lillie and Gertrude decided long ago that Ruth and I are beyond the pale.
“I have always sympathised with the notion that for the sake of her mind, body, and independence, a woman must try to keep herself from perpetual child-bearing, but became more convinced of its indispensability when my dear sister Ruth told me something I should perhaps not commit to a diary, except that it contains a salutary lesson on the need for contraception.
“She told me that, within two months of Arthur’s return from France at the end of September 1917, to her absolute despair, she discovered she was pregnant again, having already had a miscarriage the previous May. She was weary beyond belief with coping with six children, one still a baby, wondering how they were all going to survive the increasing deprivations of war with its shortage of food and money. Besides, at forty-two, she was not a young woman any more.
“She had some lecture to deliver in the centre of Leeds, and being a little early, and feeling very miserable, went into a tea shop — such a rare luxury. Sitting opposite her was a complete stranger, who must have sensed her unhappiness and drew her into conversation, and before long she found herself pouring out her troubles. The sympathetic stranger gave her the name and telephone number of a doctor in London who would help her.
“The moment she arrived home, she made an appointment, arranged for the cook and maid to take charge of the children for a night, told Arthur she was staying with Bee who was unwell, and went to London by train. After the procedure, the doctor told her to get the first train back to Leeds, go immediately to bed, and send him a telegram to let him know that all was well. Thankfully, it was.
“Ruth knew that the doctor was breaking the law, but in her heart could only admire a man who had risked his all to help a poor parson’s wife in wartime. I asked if she had any regrets, especially in these later years, but she said not. It was the only solution and best for her children, and she has always held to that. Though it has been hard to keep such a secret from Arthur all these years.
“I could not bring myself to condemn my poor, dear sister, though she knows many would. I could only guess what such a decision must have cost her. And then understood why she was so insistent we support the introduction of birth-control clinics — a far better option than the one she was forced to take.
“How perverse of God, it seems, that a husband and wife should find their love blighted by the very bodily expression of their affection. Most are forced to rely on withdrawal or periodic abstinence, which are both very prone to failure, and disastrous for the families of the poorer classes, as Ruth saw only too often in their Leeds parish.
“But what is a woman to do? The new clinics will introduce female barrier methods which have a much greater chance of success, and can therefore only enhance the marital relationship. Though why some, particularly those of religious persuasion, and largely men, of course, remain so opposed to the idea, I cannot imagine. ‘No woman can call herself free who does not own and control her body.’ So says Margaret Sanger, American doctor and campaigner for birth control.”
GUINNESS’s biography is far from a feminist tract, however; these moments are striking for being half-buried in a book full of domestic detail, a book about family bonds, Christian service, widowhood, wartime survival, and the passing of time.
And yet, as Guinness observes, the way in which Grace had carefully preserved her writings, storing them away in an antique trunk, full to the brim with notebooks and letters “in packs tied up with ribbons, newspaper cuttings from as early as 1815, volumes of poetry, postcards,” showed that perhaps “she knew that one day someone would recognise their importance. Whether she ever thought her story would be written is another matter. And it nearly wasn’t — but I rather think she would have liked it.”
Grace: The remarkable life of Grace Grattan Guinness by Michele Guinness is published in hardback by Hodder & Stoughton (£18.99 (CT Bookshop £17.10)).